Locarno 2021 review: Soul of a Beast (Lorenz Merz)

The only Swiss entry of the Concorso internazionale is Soul of a Beast, the second feature film by Lorenz Merz, whose first, Cherry Pie, already premiered in Locarno eight years ago. It is a tale of forbidden love and challenging parenthood, intertwined around one character. Gabriel, teenage father of a boy (Jamie) he had with the unstable Zoé, falls for his best friend’s girlfriend, Corey, during a night of partying, taking drugs, parading the streets with a couch – and freeing wild animals from the local zoo. This is the starting point of the plot, but not the opening scene of Soul of a Beast. Prior to it, the first minutes are used by Merz to establish the film’s aesthetic vibe, which matters a lot more to him than the narrative progression. A Japanese-spoken voice-over introduces the story (it will come back regularly, acting as a theatre chorus commenting on the characters’ actions), as we see Gabriel and his best friend Joel cheat death like this is an everyday thing, riding their moped and skateboard at full speed in traffic; and then the opening credits roll, with an unexpectedly bright soul song (Sunday Morning – another one, Bad Girl, accompanies the closing credits).

The visual and musical style, the emotional boldness, and the eagerness to try unlikely mix-and-match combinations are what compose the core of Soul of a Beast. They give Merz the means to depict rather common issues and disputes in an unusual and often compelling way. Whether it comes from the use of music, the intensity of the editing, the distinctive nature of the screen aspect ratio – a 4:3 format which puts us as close as possible to the characters – or of the cinematography (grainy and warm in a singular way), the movie constantly has something special to offer through its form. The same goes for its narrative form, full of sudden shifts and pairing of opposites: ages (teenage impulses and adult duties), languages (Merz makes a great use of the multilingual nature of his country), status (Gabriel lives in poverty while Zoé comes from a wealthy family – this opposition, which leans towards caricature, is weaker) – even between human and animal, as stated in the title.

This last pairing opens the door to the question of order and disorder, which fuels one of the most impressive scenes of the film, in which society seems to collapse at the same time as the intimate life of the characters – yet we are left uncertain of whether this collapse occurs through a party or a revolution. What is clearer is that in the course of this second incredible night, mirroring the first one, Gabriel loses it all after having thought he could win everything. This critical scene, brilliantly executed with some powerful parallel editing, increasing the impact of a tragic chase and of the accident that follows, makes us forget for a few minutes how the story had been stalling for awhile. After that, it will also revel in its unresolved drama in the final act. But in this scene, as with Merz’s other strokes of beauty, we are swept along by the sheer strength of the aesthetics.